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Herbert Bayer and the Art of Reclamation

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Introduction

Humans have used their creative energies since pre-history to boldly shape the land in the form of earthworks for varied purposes including spiritual, ceremonial, cosmological, and possibly recreational. It is only in relatively recent times, however, that artists have begun to use the medium as a means of reclaiming abused and neglected landscapes, managing storm water, or detoxifying contaminated soil. The environmental art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s ushered in a new wave of art works that utilized the landscape as both medium and site, some of which attempted to address issues of site remediation. This movement dramatically affected the way many landscape architects approached their work. This new generation of landscape architects was influenced not only by the strong formal gestures on the land and how this work expressed natural phenomena but also by the conceptual ideas and writings of some of these environmental artists. These landscape architects also took notice of how these artists used their work as a means of reclaiming land, or at least in calling attention to the issue. The works, ideas, and writings of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Nancy Holt, Robert Morris, and other artists involved in the environmental art movement are well documented. On the other hand, Herbert Bayer and his work are curiously absent from most of the literature of the movement. Robert Morris suggests that this might have been due to the intimate scale of Bayer’s work when compared to that of other environmental artists of that period. (1) The younger group of environmental artists, nonetheless, respected him well enough to include his earthworks in the exhibition, “Earth Works,” at the Dwan Gallery in New York in October 1968. It is also clear that Bayer and his work, while not as well known as some other environmental artists of the period, was known by many in the discipline of landscape architecture.

The move out of the gallery and into the landscape that characterized the environmental art movement was more about the de-commodification of art than ecological sensitivity. In fact much criticism was directed at some of the work such as Michael Heizer’s monumental scale pieces in desert environments as being definitively damaging to sensitive arid ecosystems. There were, however, environmental artists whose work reflected a concern for environmental degradation or sought to educate the public about those concerns. Artists such as Helen and Newton Harrison, Buster Simpson, Michael Singer, Harriet Feigenbaum, Alan Sonfist, and more recently, Lorna Jordan and Mel Chin fall into this latter category. Chin’s use of hyperaccumulator plants for soil detoxification and Jordan’s work with storm water are two examples of this environmentally responsible art.

The Art of Reclamation – Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks

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Herbert Bayer’s work was unique at the time in that one of the driving forces behind it was his strong dedication to the idea that art should have social utility, an approach attributed to his Bauhaus training and his ability to bridge many disciplines. He felt strongly that his work would more fully engage the public through the fusion of art and technology. If the lay person or casual observer of art could come to appreciate a function that related to their lives, such a relationship would encourage them to appreciate and possibly understand the art. Bayer did not shy away from the public process but embraced it and made it a part of his art. Encouraging public discourse and input during the creative process was more likely to engender a feeling of public ownership of the final result.

Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, completed in 1982, is a clear expression of Bayer’s desire to fuse art with everyday life through technology and social utility. The elegance of its simple, bold geometry gives the earthwork a serene quality that provides visitors with a compelling experience while maintaining its utilitarian function, storm water detention. (2) This work of environmental art is actually a two and one-half acre portion of a 96-acre city park in Kent, Washington, near Seattle. The Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks is a popular and renowned work of art that challenges the status quo of ecological design and sustainability. It was one of only two implemented works out of eight proposals that were the result of Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, a symposium and watershed event in the field of environmental art as reclamation in Seattle in 1979.

The formal approach that Herbert Bayer used at Mill Creek Canyon is similar to that used in his earlier landscapes in Aspen, Colorado. The conical landforms, circular pools of water, and ring-shaped landforms encircling water were all a part of his formal vocabulary evident in Grass Mound and Anderson Park. Bayer intended to create a landscape of continually changing spatial interest with varying degrees of enclosure and views both into and out of the spaces. Bayer wanted people to experience and enjoy his relief sculpture of earth; he expected them to climb the landforms, walk around them, and enjoy them from a distance. The experiential quality of the piece changed daily, seasonally, and over time. The slopes and shapes of the landforms were actually conditioned by hydrologic principles to facilitate the flow and detention of water. He considered his chosen medium, earth, to be a material of nature and the forms that he created from it to be “natural” and in complete harmony with the surrounding natural landscape of the stream corridor.

The City of Kent, through its Arts Commission and Parks and Recreation Department, commissioned this project as a solution to increasing urban storm water runoff and its resultant flooding and soil erosion problems. The environmental artwork was a means of enlivening the plans for a proposed storm water detention basin and creating a unique entrance to an existing public park. The city’s goals were to control flooding, to restore fish runs, and to create an aesthetically pleasing facility that would contribute to the enhancement of the park. (3)

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One of the indicators of the support for this project was its varied funding sources; grants were received from local, county, state and federal arts agencies as well as the city engineering department and a community development block grant from HUD. The local citizenry, led by their mayor, was staunchly supportive of the effort from the beginning. In their quest to raise additional funds to supplement the acquired grants, the people of Kent sold signed Bayer-designed posters commemorating the earthworks and even held bake sales. This kind of grass roots support led to the implementation and long-term success of the project.

Herbert Bayer’s Impact on the Discipline of Landscape Architecture

In addition to an appreciation for his elegant landform compositions, Bayer’s work is reflected in contemporary landscape architecture in primarily two ways: through his embrace of the public process and his insistence that art should serve a social purpose. While many landscape architects have always advocated strongly for public input and social utility in their work, these issues took on a new urgency in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the 1980’s, the field of landscape architecture was struggling to put to rest the art versus ecology or design versus science dichotomy. The environmental art movement was instrumental in allowing the discipline to see that this was, indeed, a false dichotomy. While not fully appreciated at the time of its completion, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks’ combination of art and science in the form of sculpted earth acting as storm water detention basin, was, in fact, a window into the future of landscape architecture where designers now routinely view their work as a seamless fusion of art and ecology. The work of George Hargreaves of Hargreaves Associates, James Corner and his firm Field Operations, Michel Desvigne of Desvigne and Dalnoky, Adriaan Geuze of West 8, Peter Latz of Latz Partners, the late Robert Murase of Murase Associates, and William Wenk of Wenk Associates are some of the most notable.

Laurie Olin, of the Olin Partnership in Philadelphia, knew of Bayer’s work as a young architectural student in the late 1950’s and had the opportunity to explore his earthworks, sculptures, screens, murals, and architecture while at the Aspen summer design festival in 1978. He relates, “I was moved, impressed, and envious of their ideas, spirit, and execution. The Bronze Age references were so obvious, but at the same time fresh, even unique – clearly seen to have influenced numerous landscape architects including Hideo Sasaki, Lawrence Halprin, Peter Walker, and Olin’s teacher and mentor, Rich Haag.” (4)

Haag credits his visit to the Pre-Columbian earthworks and ruins in Mexico as the primary influence for his earthworks at Jordan Park in Everett, Washington, completed in 1972, well before his Gasworks Park in Seattle. He also acknowledges his visit to Aspen where he was impressed by Bayer’s work. (5) Although not as well known as his other work, Jordan Park might well be considered the first contemporary earthworks by a landscape architect. Haag also shared Bayer’s commitment to social utility. Gasworks Park was a forerunner of sustainable design before the phrase became commonplace. His introduction of biological agents into the soil to remove toxins was ingenious and proved to be well ahead of its time in the soil remediation arena.

The name Martha Schwartz is not often associated with the words ecology, sustainable design, or reclamation. However, her earthwork in Geraldton, Ontario reclaims a mining site through a composition reminiscent of Bayer’s simple geometric forms. More importantly, this earthwork creates a stunning visual gateway to the small town devastated by a history of mining operations. It also functions as a community park with recreational trails throughout.

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While the field of landscape architecture in general, and several individual designers in particular, have been positively influenced by environmental artists such as Herbert Bayer, no other individual’s work stands out more than that of George Hargreaves and his firm, Hargreaves Associates. While Hargreaves acknowledges the tremendous influence of Robert Smithson and others on his work, he is also familiar with Bayer’s work in Aspen and Mill Creek Canyon. Hargreaves’ early work such as Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater in Denver, and Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, California exemplify his propensity to push the boundaries of topographic manipulation unlike any other landscape architect. His belief that simple, bold geometries are much more legible in the landscape led to his prolific use of landform to produce a large body of work in the past 25 years.

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Hargreaves’ Guadalupe River Park is similar to Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in many ways. Both were created as a reaction to an engineered stormwater facility, both sought to provide the same function as the original design but in a more creative way, both designers hoped to engage the user with ecological processes, and both Hargreaves and Bayer embraced the public process as a means to bring the future users along on a journey of understanding that would result in their long term support. The one major difference was Hargreaves’ desire for his design to accommodate ecological process over time as a way to continually modify the landscape; his open composition began with static forms that would eventually evolve into something perhaps completely different. It is not as clear, however, if Bayer expected or desired the evolution of the Mill Creek Canyon landforms over time by the movement of stormwater through them.

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The most lucid articulation of Herbert Bayer’s design philosophy was illustrated in a collaborative effort with a landscape architect on one of Bayer’s lesser-known projects, the Arco Chemical Company facility in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Laurie Olin and his late partner Bob Hanna, of Hanna/Olin, Ltd., designed an entry drive that culminated in a paved court at the front door of the facility with a crescent of granite bollards to separate pedestrians from vehicles while allowing freedom of movement for pedestrians. When Bayer, then serving as art consultant to Arco, was asked to create a sculpture for the court, he declined to add another object, preferring instead to transform an element of the landscape architects’ composition. He proposed stretching the granite bollards from a height of three feet to a height of nine feet thus creating an elegant sculpture out of the most mundane of all functional landscape elements, the lowly bollard. This simple straightforward design move that created elegance out of a mere functional furnishing, is a classic example of Bayer’s desire to merge his art with social utility.

Conclusion

Art critic Erika Doss has described Michael Heizer’s Effigy Tumuli Sculptures, created as part of a strip mine reclamation in Illinois, as a public art disaster. She reached this conclusion because the artist and patron not only failed to inform the public of the art work but they also completely excluded the public from the process of creating the art. (6) Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks is the polar opposite of Effigy Tumuli Sculptures and is a clear example of the importance of the public process in ensuring the staying power of public art. The public was involved in Mill Creek Canyon from beginning to end and the fact that we are celebrating its 25th anniversary is testament to Herbert Bayer’s dedication to understanding that his first responsibility was to the public who has used this park for all these years.

While extended detention of storm water volumes was thought to be ecologically sustainable at the time of Bayer’s creation of Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, current thought indicates that this approach is problematic. Runoff should be dealt with where it falls to the ground in multiple smaller volumes rather than collecting a singular large volume and releasing it later into existing water bodies. Capturing runoff in infiltration swales or basins in many locations within the Mill Creek watershed would be a much more sustainable and less damaging approach to solving the issue of flooding and its attendant erosion and sedimentation downstream of the earthworks. This approach could possibly significantly diminish the need for alteration of the earthworks. The University of Washington’s Department of Landscape Architecture has already begun to investigate ways in which these stormwater problems may be solved in a more sustainable manner.

The purist in all of us can envision this work of art being preserved just as it looked when it was built or a few years afterward. There is precedent for such action in any historic landscape that has been frozen in time at a particular and pre-selected moment or period. After all, we would never think of adding to or subtracting from a Picasso, Moore, or Serra. On the other hand, the argument could be made that Bayer felt strongly enough about the social utility of his work that altering Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in the name of societal benefit, might be perfectly acceptable to him. He felt that humans should co-exist with nature rather than at odds with it. Even though increased runoff in the watershed is primarily due to human action, the evolution of his art to accommodate this interaction of humans and nature just might have appealed to him. Regardless of the future approach to altering the earthworks, it must be done with the same elegance, care, and thoughtfulness that Herbert Bayer brought to the original work.

Bio

Timothy Baird, RLA, ASLA is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University where he teaches design, design implementation, and the history and theory of landscape architecture beyond Modernism. Currently conducting research on environmental art and designed landscapes that were commissioned in land reclamation contexts, he has authored numerous articles including “A Composed Ecology: After 20-plus years, how is Herbert Bayer's renowned Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks holding up?” (Landscape Architecture, March 2003.) and “Environmental Art as Sustainable Design: Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks and Effigy Tumuli Sculptures.” (CELA Conference Proceedings, Spring 2004). Prior to entering academia fulltime, he practiced landscape architecture for 25 years with a variety of firms including Hargreaves Associates, Peter Walker and Partners, and Hanna/Olin, Ltd.

Notes

1. Morris, Robert, e-mail correspondence with the author August 10, 2007.
2. Olin, Margaret R., Book Review of Herbert Bayer: The Complete Work in Winterthur Portfolio (v. 21, Summer/Autumn, 1986), 213.
3. City of Kent, WA, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, (publicity brochure by City of Kent, WA, c.1982), 4-5.
4. Olin, Laurie, e-mail correspondence with the author August 29, 2007.
5. Haag, Richard, in an interview by the author, June 20, 2001.
6. Doss, Erika, Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 117.

Images

1. Herbert Bayer, Grass Mound, 1955. Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, Aspen, Colorado.
2. Herbert Bayer, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, 1982. Kent, Washington. Photo: John Hoge, 1982.
3. Herbert Bayer, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, 1982. Kent, Washington. Photo: local newspaper, mid 1980’s.
4. Martha Schwartz, late 1990s.McLeod Mine Tailings Reclamation. Geraldton, Ontario, Canada.
5. Hargreaves Associates, Guadalupe River Park, 1995. San Jose, California.
6. Hanna/Olin, Ltd., landscape architect and Herbert Bayer, art consultant. Arco Chemical Company, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, 1979.